Sunday, 17 June 2012

Olympic Flame(s)

I said (Tuesday 29th May) that I would return to the question of the Olympic torch. When the torch passed through my village, I overheard somebody saying how each of the flames kept in case the torch went out were the same. The question that immediately sprang to mind was 'How can a number of separate things be the same thing?'

Clearly they cannot. What the Olympic flame and the spares have in common is a certain continuity with what was kindled at Mount Olympus. That, for most people, is probably enough to warrant the idea of 'same-ness'.

There is more, though. This problem is rather like  Heraclitus' (c535–c475 BCE) problem of whether one can step into the same river twice. If water has flowed past, is it the same river? If it is not the same river, one cannot step into the same river twice.

A flame is like a river in as much as it has a source. Instead of water upstream, the flame is constantly being fed by a source of combustible material. Some might consider the flame to be the same if the combustible material feeding the flame is from a constant source. However, if a flame ignited in Greece (and fed Greek gas - if there is such a thing) comes to be fed in the UK with British/North Sea gas, then it is doubtful whether one can say that it is the same flame. For Heraclitus, even if the combustible material were the same he would not have been satisfied that the flame was always the same. What makes the flame at each instant in time is substantively different from what made it the instant before and what will make it the instant after.

The way I have seen the flame handled is somewhat reminiscent of how a culture of bacteria is handled. This prompts a new question: that of whether an epidemic can be considered as consisting of one single disease or whether there are different (albeit similar) forms of it due to different individual bacteria infecting different individuals.